Why We Write: The Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

by
Jay Baron Nicorvo
12.13.17
Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. —Henry David Thoreau

 

Like most writers, I consider myself reasonably self-aware. I do believe the unexamined life is worth living, but it’s not a life I’d care to live, at least not as an adult. Yet I’d managed to work on a novel nearly every day for five years, and it never occurred to me that the emotional hardships, the traumas, I was running my characters through were so plainly, and painfully, my own. About a month before a publisher acquired my first novel, The Standard Grand—a novel that concerns a large cast of characters, civilians and veterans, fighting through trauma and its aftermath—I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Which came first, the writing about traumatic stress or the traumatic stress? It’s an insincere question. Me being flippant. A way to delay—yet again, and for just a little while longer—writing something I’ve never before written, not without the guise of fiction or the elision of verse.

Writing trauma, and reading trauma, induces trauma in the traumatized—you may take this as your trigger warning—but I’ve found that this induction, coupled with proper care, can also help us to live with, rather than be done in by, our traumas. So here goes.

Having grown up poor, in poverty’s requisite deficit of security, I’ve got trauma to spare. The longest-lasting, and most stress-inducing, arises from a time when I was around six years old. That’s when my years-long molestation at the hands of my babysitter began. The chronic sexual abuse, my chronic sexual abuse, was hard enough. Worse was the way I was forced to keep the secret of it—first in the face of violent threats and then in simple, brutal shame. There, I did it. And you know what? I don’t feel one bit better. I even feel somewhat worse, and from experience I know that the feeling will carry over into the next days and weeks, at least. But the hardest part, for me, has simply been getting to this point—this very goddamn paragraph—and it’s taken me only thirty-five years from that formative moment of trauma.

***

There is a character in my novel who’s something of a Bizarro me, a me I would have become had my mom not moved us out of that abusive Jersey Shore town and down to Florida when I was ten. In creating this character, I was trying to imagine what would’ve happened had I spent my entire childhood in the same neighborhood as my molester, who was a minor at the time. The alternate reality I kept coming back to was that I would’ve enlisted—something I nearly did on two occasions anyway—to get out from under the long shadow of my intimate victimhood, so my novelized not-me, Ray Tyro, is a veteran, but a vet who’s somewhat compromised. He’s spent more time as a security contractor than a soldier. He’s a mercenary—a population with little representation in our war literature—and I lent him my molestation mostly as I remember it.

Foisting my sexual abuse onto one of my characters helped me to experience my trauma but at a level of remove, and with a little less stress. Very literally, I rewrote the narrative of my trauma, reclaiming some small measure of control over the single most defining, and damaging, moment of my life. Novel writing has by no means saved me, but it has allowed me to reach a guiding hand, tentative, into the past to help shake free that helpless boy still pinned, all these years later, under a teenage boy trusted with my care.

***

My brand of PTSD is somewhat peculiar. It manifests as panic disorder, mostly, but it’s complicated by—comorbidity is the clinical term—an additional, and somewhat controversial, diagnosis of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). My panic attacks are hallucinogenic. Before an attack I perceive a distortion in my visual field, somewhat akin to the disturbances that can presage a migraine. Whatever setting or social situation I’m in, I begin to “see” a spiraling arrangement of surfaces and gestures.

These unvaried hallucinations, leading invariably to full-blown panic attacks, began when I was eighteen, during a bad acid trip, right around the time I first spoke of my molestation. All these years later, my hallucinogenic panics have lost none of their disruptive clarity. I might even consider this trick of cognition a psychedelic bargain—freebie flashbacks—if every one of them didn’t feel so catastrophic. And they’re often inspired by stimuli I mistakenly, but understandably, associate with my
molestation.

By and large, with the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist, my devoted wife, and my mother, who is a survivor too, and a years-long secret keeper of sexual abuse, I’ve learned to negotiate, if not control, my symptoms. Writing helps. But I’ve come to believe that writing can’t be therapy. If anything, I’ve learned otherwise: Writing, without familial and clinical care, can cause more emotional harm than good.

***

Listen to the author read this article. 

 

***

As I understand it, novel writing is largely pattern recognition followed by the expression of the recognized pattern. At one end rests the simple symbol of the letter, a fixed arrangement of marks that, in turn and in conjunction, establishes ever more contingent patterns of words, sentences, syntax, and formal structures, ad infinitum. At the far other end of the modest letter looms the novel, arguably the furthest artistic advance of human pattern making in language.

Novel writing is the extreme extension of an everyday application, what neurologists call pareidolia: the perception of a familiar pattern—given a stimulus, a sight or a sound, usually—without the existence of the actual perceived object. Seeing faces in strange places (faucets, for example) is a common example. This is distinct from, but may lead to, apophenia: the perception of connectedness in unrelated phenomena. If, while in the bath, the faucet face gives you a queer feeling, bearing a peculiar resemblance to your grandfather, a retired plumber recovering from a recent angioplasty, and you’re struck with the worry that something’s happened to him, well, that’s pareidolia plus apophenia. Pareidolia is the mind finding form in noise, and apophenia is conferring meaning upon the found form.

What novel writers are actively doing when they write, what novel readers are passively doing when they read, is entertaining a shared sense of pareidolia and apophenia. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this cognitive phenomenon “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Putting it more plainly, Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (W. H. Freeman, 1997), dubs it patternicity, his pet name for a concept that unifies pareidolia and apophenia. He believes our brains are “belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature,” and all our art is—to a lesser degree—the expression of this nature.

What those of us with PTSD experience, on a too-regular basis, is the unwilling suspension of disbelief. We encounter some stimulus and the past is dragged kicking and screaming into the present. During this psychological meantime—having perceived a familiar pattern and established some connectedness, however false—we have difficulty reestablishing our disbelief.

***

I have come to believe that twenty years spent in the daily exercise of patternicity has strengthened my imagination but weakened my ability to regulate disbelief. This is what I mean by saying writing can, on its own, do more emotional harm than good. Is it any real wonder that artists are so often beset by madness? The mad may well gravitate toward art, but making art also asks the artist to isolate and habitually entertain a condition of madness. These days, whether I want to or not, I perceive more connectedness than I did. This is partly the result of a more mature neural network—some would call it wisdom—but it’s also a symptom of trauma.

Those of us living with PTSD have an exaggerated sense of both apophenia and pareidolia. But as Phil Klay, author of Redeployment (Penguin Press, 2014), has pointed out, in an essay for the New York Times in which he bridges that gap between child abuse and battle stress, “If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable, then survivors are trapped—unable to feel truly known.” For veterans coming home from war, for the sexually abused engaging in sex and all of its social suggestions, for any of us who’ve survived the radical amazement induced by life’s awful extremes, but especially those who’ve had to tend, and stoke, the seeming exclusivity of such extremes, the world and its infinite stimuli encourage a great deal more connectedness. As a result, we traumatized are both weaker and stronger for our traumas. I’m convinced I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I weren’t constantly engaged in the practice, often against my will and with significant stress, of finding meaning in what others—the unfortunate untraumatized—deem blissfully meaningless. But I need to be careful.

During stressful times, which for me often coincide with social settings, every single thing—every word, every breath, every movement, mote, and instant—can be cause for heightened awareness leading to panic. In these moments, my perception dilates as my consciousness shrinks. Tapping into our collective cognitive past, what Robert Bly poetically but unscientifically, and in a very 1970s sort of way, referred to as the reptilian brain, I see more and understand less. This overstimulation, finding interconnectedness in every single minuscule thing, feels inexhaustible, and terrible. But afterward, alone or talking with my wife or my therapist, when I’m trying, and largely failing, to make sense of all the dizzying misconnections and disconnections, I’m often left with one or two ties tangible enough to hold tight to.

Once I regain some semblance of myself, the first thing I try to do is write them down.

 

Jay Baron Nicorvo lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. He is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), which was picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List and Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, as well as named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers Magazine. He has published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012), and is working on a memoir.